Hitchcock Year, Week 2: The Lodger

– A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG. I’ve written about this remarkable entrance before.

lodg5

Fiona is fascinated by Ivor Novello’s wax hand. Actually, since he moves his fingers a second later, it obviously isn’t actually a wax hand, but it looks like a wax hand, you see, so we call it his wax hand. It makes another appearance in the classic shot where the lodger goes out for his Tuesday night perambulations –

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The white, waxen extremity glides down the banister like Thing from The Addams Family on a helter skelter. It’s the first appearance of an angle Hitchcock would use on several other occasions, always adding something new. Here, the disembodied effect produced by the angle creates an eeriness that heightens the anxiety felt about Novello’s mysterious attic occupant. In VERTIGO, the overhead view is accompanied by Hitch’s famous exponential zoom, making the staircase concertina out in a, well, vertiginous fashion.  And in PSYCHO, the shot allows Hitch to conceal the true nature of Mrs. Bates when Norman carries her down to the fruit cellar.

While one of those shots is purely subjective – James Stewart’s literal POV shot, with a psychological effect distorting it – and one is a piece of objective narrational sleight-of-hand – Hitch keeping Mrs. B. off-camera without hopefully giving the game away, the case of THE LODGER is slightly different. The shot is bracketed by images of landlady Mrs Bunting (lovely name!) sitting up in bed, listening to the lodger’s movements. So we are primed to read the top-shot as her imaginary view of what’s happening, in exactly the same way as we read the celebrated (but disparaged by Hitch) glass ceiling shot, in which Mrs. B. and the other supporting characters imagine Ivor stalking around upstairs, based on the sound of his footsteps and the rattling of the little chandelier.

Naturally, since Mrs. B. already regards the lodger with a fair bit of suspicion, she imagines his exit using the sinister imagery illustrated above. The fact that we start with a view looking up at Ivor leaving his room — a figurative POV taken from the angle of Mrs. Bunting’s bedroom on the floor below, and then go to the high-angle as he descends further, shows how careful Hitch was about creating the impression of subjectivity.

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Ivor Novello keeps the home fire burning, which is perhaps a joke on his status as composer of the song “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” a song whose ubiquity during WWI was such that officer/war poet Siegfried Sassoon vowed to shoot the author dead. Sassoon did later meet Novello, and although he didn’t shoot him, he apparently was rather rude.

THE LODGER is an incredible film. Already in THE PLEASURE GARDEN Hitch shows that he knows how to construct a scene skilfully, but here he’s obviously quite excited by every aspect of his story (the first story he selected himself), and seizes opportunities for creativity, dramatic tension, bravura gestures, psychological and social observation — everything.

The piece is amazingly packed with Hitchcockian tropes, and scenes of sinister discussion and un-aired tensions over the breakfast table, looking forward to BLACKMAIL (“Knife! Knife!”), SHADOW OF A DOUBT, et al. The opening sequence, where news of a murder spreads across the city, features not only the first Hitchcock cameo (motivated purely by a shortage of extras, we’re told), but the kind of procedural detail that fascinated Hitch, even though he’s not thought of primarily as a social documentarist. His fantasy project, the documentation of the movement of food into a city (by cattle-trucks and grocery vans etc) and out again (by the sewers), is pre-echoed by this montage, which follows the reporting of a homicide from crime scene to morning paper.

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47 Responses to “Hitchcock Year, Week 2: The Lodger”

  1. RIP Patrick McGoohan.

  2. David, I’m sorry I can’t seem to find an email address for you. I thought you might enjoy this: http://frankensteinia.blogspot.com/2009/01/dart-prize.html

  3. Goodness me! Thanks!

  4. RIP Ricardo Montalban too.

    “Thing,” Chas. Addams disembodied hand makes its first apeparance in James Whale’s The Old Dark House. Fairly early on Gloria Stuart is standing on a stairway landing that opens onto the living room. The camera is placed medium long shot and you suddenly see a hand emerge on the left oif the fram gripping banister. We find out that the hand belongs to the insane relative that Ernest Thesinger has been trying to keep locked up, but for a few lovely moments it’s just a hand.

  5. I know this is the time for year for it, but there seems to be an extraordinary bumper crop of fatalities this time round. Who’s left?

    I love the hand-on-bannister gag in Old Dark House. What’s even better is when Boris Karloff appears, and we think it’s his hand, but then he descends the stairs and the hand stays where it was.

    Reminds me, I have Whale’s The Impatient Maiden to watch.

    And Caligula.

  6. My favourite McGoohan clip, though not very good quality. Shakespearea as drum solo. Works rather well:

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=JNYHulJfUr0

    Oh I meant to ask, did you catch that last time the BBC showed King Kong over Christmas? If you pressed the red button on your remote you could hear an entirely new score by “Rob Da Bank”… a bit odd since King Kong isn’t a silent movie. But a very nice and different use for all this digital all the same I thought.

  7. I recorded that out of curiosity. Not only does Kong NEED its dialogue and sound effects, but the new music…not very appropriate.

    The idea of different soundtracks is interesting, but somebody’s going to have to find an actual purpose for it. Direcotr’s commentaries? But those are usually rather dull. If the BBC would start showing silent films again they could offer a choice of tracks, but that would be way too much trouble for them, I suspect.

  8. Good drumming from madman McGoohan! I’m planning my second major investigation of Basil Dearden’s work. I quite like All Night Long but it somehow doesn’t go far enough. Othello with a happy ending?

    At his best, as in that clip, Dearden could create a powerful blend of sound, image and performance.

  9. Patrick McGoohan gone too. A real gentleman. So many fond memories of watching him on TV. RIP
    As they say, people are dying now who never died before.

  10. That’s very true. It was kind of a shock to realise Mcgoohan was as old as 80, let alone dead. You can’t get much older than dead.

  11. Re. McGoohan: I acquired and watched Disney’s Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1964) not too long back, something I’d remembered from my youth. He’s interviewed in one of the extras, and of course, as it is with so many these days, I was shocked to see how he’d aged. McGoohan plays the vicar, by day, and vigilante Scarecrow by night, and the twilight hours in between. It actually holds up well. A friend gave me a season of The Prisoner not long ago. Sadly, for me it hasn’t held up quite as well. It’s sometimes hard to go back and look at these things we loved so much in our childhood, our youth. Hit and miss, some things hold up, some things don’t. As for Montalban, two noirs come to mind, Anthony Mann’s Border Incident, a very good performance in a very good film, and Mystery Street, with Jan Sterling, Marshall Thompson, Elsa Lanchester and others in a solid entertainment, a worthwhile film. I’ll leave it to others to sing the praises of his better-known performances.

  12. I still like The Prisoner as much as ever. Acquired the DVDs but don’t know when I’ll watch them. It’s probably my favourite McGoohan work. But his simian turn in Hell Drivers is… arresting.

    I want to see The Scarecrow of RM, and also Disney’s Zorro series, which I saw as a kid and now learn was the work of Norman “Mr Moto” Foster.

    I liked Mystery Street a lot, and for some reason have yet to watch Border Incident. Both lensed by the great John Alton.

  13. I have to reluctantly agree with Guy about The Prisoner not holding up well (in fact, when The Guardian sees fit to run an editorial saying how it’s a timeless classic an’ all, I have to question why I ever liked it in the first place – something to do with being fifteen when I saw it, the perfect age for a libertarian paranoid allegory?) – but I will miss McGoohan’s presence in the world terribly. Most of all because, like Brando, I always held to the thought that he had one more epochal performance in him. His long absence from cinema (apart from his fantastic bit in the otherwise emetic Braveheart) is seemingly explained by (a) alcoholism and (b) awful stagefright, though his extraordinarily rightwing Catholicism might also have had a part to play in keeping him away from the fleshpots of Hollywood (apart from his lovely dalliances with directing and appearing in Columbo episodes).

    Two beautiful, little-seen films – Kings and Desperate Men, with Alexis whateverhisnamewas, the bloke from the final episode of The Prisoner, as a terrorist kidnapper holding shock-jock McG hostage; and the Irish Melvillean film maudit par excellence, The Hard Way, with McG and Lee van Cleef shooting it out in the Dublin mountains. In fact, if you’re interested, David, I’ll send you a copy of the latter – it would fit perfectly into your column of forgotten wonders in The Auteurs, and I can fill in some of the backstory from personal experience.

  14. The Hard Way sounds great — put me down for a copy!

    I’m now mad at Mel Gibson for not giving a fellow mad rightwing Catholic more work. I initially worried that Braveheart, which appears to me despicable on nearly every level, was just exploiting a mad old ham, but then looking at McG in Hell Drivers it seems more likely he was just doing what came naturally.

    Alexis Kanner? Also good in Crossplot, where he shrugs off his aristocratic status: “All I had to do was get born. A baby could have done it.” And speaking of Roger Moore, I just picked up Val Guest’s autobio, which has several affectionate refs to St Rog.

  15. Of course McG should have been in The Passion of the Christ, I’d never even realised the omission – what a great John the Baptist he would have made (allowing for poetic license with regard to his age). Or even better, I’d love to have seen his Saint Paul, smirking with one side of his mouth as he despatches Christians, then blasted into monotheism by the light of the Lord….

  16. The hell with it, let him play Christ. Actually, no, not much of a fun part.

  17. In his youthful prime McGoohan would’ve made a very charismatic Christ. He really was a handsome devil in the classic sense, had a great speaking voice, and he exuded a certain unflappable self-confidence onscreen back in the Sixties. TCM has shown Hell Drivers on occasion, though not lately. I’m looking forward to catching up to it eventually.

  18. It’s quite noirish! And it has the most testosteronic cast in British cinema history.

  19. A couple of moments of Patrick McGoohan nostalgia:

  20. Looking at the cast on IMDB. Stanley Baker has the testosterone of ten men. Throw in Sean Connery and you can make it twenty.

  21. Spare a thought too for those great comic actors, Sid James and Alfie Bass.

  22. Both playing it straight. Even Herbert Lom is unusually macho in this one, and McGoohan has apparently regressed to apeman level. Thank God Peggy Cummings is around to focus all this pent-up manliness or it’d be hell on earth!

  23. As we are looking back at the best of British drama, I’d may as well mention the memorable TV series “Callan”, with Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter.

  24. Good hardboiled stuff on Brit TV in those days. My next excursion into vintage telly will be The Sandbaggers.

  25. And for a somewhat more benign and leisurely stroll down memory lane, I can think of Dr. Finlay’s Casebook.

  26. A friend of mine has been pimping a show called Gangsters, just out on DVD, apparently another classic bit of seventies Ted Lewis-style hardboiledness…. anybody care to second it?

  27. A very short clip from Kings and Desperate Men:

  28. I’ve heard that Gangsters is very good, especially when it goes INSANE in series two… genuinely experimental stuff, apparently.

  29. Another film with McGoohan I have fond memories of is Basil Dearden’s Life for Ruth.

  30. Another Dearden I haven’t seen. What a prolific guy. I have seen about twenty of his films, I think, have five or so lined up, and here’s another one I don’t know about.

  31. He sure was. Life for Ruth is a quiet, thoughtful film. I also like, for example, Dearden’s The Bells Go Down, which of course always reminds me of that great Humprhey Jennings film Fires Were Started.
    Anyway, a song for the road:

  32. Gangsters is eleven quid on Amazon (for the complete show, Play for Today and both series) – I’ll report back on it, it sounds really extraordinary!

  33. I absolutely LOVE Peggy Cummins. You female readers might look down on me for this, but her bum in cowgirl britches is magnificent, truly a sight to behold. I just wish she’d done more.

  34. Strangely, her bum in jeans in Hell Drivers isn’t quite as fulsome. But she’s delightful. Apparently she just recently saw Night of the Demon for the first time.

    I want to do a Dearden season sometime. His good bits are incredibly good. His bad bits are still OK.

  35. About said bum, time has a way of changing things. Re. Dearden, I’ve yet to see anything of his, but those that interest me are The Blue Lamp, Cage of Gold, Frieda, and League of Gentlemen. I have a feeling that I may have caught some or all of League… some years ago, but I won’t know for sure until I see it again. Also, did she express her reaction to Night of the Demon?

  36. Lamp and League are very good indeed. Dead of Night is a masterpiece, and some of the very best bits are his.

    I think Peggy C was nice about NOTD, but in a non-specific way.

  37. Just read Criterion’s releasing Stephen Frears’ The Hit in the not-too-distant future. Never seen it, been wanting to for some time. Terence Stamp, John Hurt, and Tim Roth, to see these three together should be a treat. I’ve heard many good things about this film over time.

  38. I remember being mildly disappointed by it on its original release, but then, it had been mooted as some sort of return to the great days of Get Carter or some such nonsense by the usual flyblown assortment of desperate hack journos. It may have aged well.

  39. It’s OK. Frears never seems to quite take things as far as he might. Or as far as I’d like him to, anyway. I don’t think this one really knows what it’s doing, storywise, but it’s very watchable.

    My favourite Frears is Gumshoe.

  40. I agree. Gumshoe is one of my favourites too. I haven’t seen it in years. Is it available on DVD?
    Speaking of Albert Finney, I am very fond of Paul Seed’s poignant film A Rather English Marriage. Tom Courtney is also excellent in it.
    On the topic of excellence, I watched Bob Quinn’s powerful Irish language film Poitín on TV recently. Here is a short clip to give you a flavour of the film:

  41. I think there was talk of a Gumshoe release.

    Haven’t seen the Seed.

    I love Cyril Cusack. Won’t be long until I see him in Juno and the Paycock.

  42. Poitín is great, the best thing Bob Quinn ever made and one of the best Irish features ever made. Must try and have another look at it soon.

  43. I totally agree about Poitín. An Irish masterpiece, indeed a world masterpiece. Brilliant acting, great locations and very powerful. It reminds me at times of “Kaos”, another favourite film of mine, made by the Taviani brothers.

    Cyril Cusack is a great and versatile actor. I always feel there is something of the archetypal father figure about him.

  44. Yes, the paternal side is even there (or especially there) when he’s being sinister. Fahrenheit 451, for instance.

  45. I agree. The paternal side is even more accentuated when he’s being sinister. Poitín is another good example.

  46. [...] David Cairns examines the sinister white hand on the staircase [...]

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